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GAO : Covert Propaganda

Why the Restriction?


The Armstrong Williams case has focused a spotlight on federal agency expenditures for propaganda. It might come as a surprise that while propaganda is not explicitly prohibited, it is the most common form of appropriation act restriction. This document contains relevant portions of a GAO report that explores how federal appropriations may be legally made for propaganda.

GAO report number GAO-04-261SP
"Principles of Federal Appropriations Law: Third Edition: Volume I"
September 28, 2004

Emphasis added, as are administration presidential names linked to dates.

c. Appropriation Act Restrictions:
(1) Origin and general considerations:

Restrictions on the purposes for which appropriated funds may be spent come from a variety of sources. Some may stem from the Constitution itself...

A common source of purpose restrictions is the appropriation act itself. Restrictions are often included as provisos to the appropriating language or as general provisions or "riders." For example, B-202716, Oct. 29, 1981, [Reagan] construes an appropriation act restriction prohibiting the use of Legal Services Corporation funds for the representation of illegal aliens. Another example is the restriction on "publicity and propaganda" expenditures found in some appropriation acts, discussed in section C.11...

The most common form of appropriation act restriction prohibits the use of funds for "publicity or propaganda." There are several variations of the provision, with varying degrees of specificity. As of 2003, in addition to two governmentwide publicity or propaganda restrictions, approximately half of the regular annual appropriation acts include some version. The simplest version of the statute, and the most general, is this:
    "No part of any appropriation contained in this Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by the Congress." [Footnote 327]
It prohibits expenditures for all unauthorized publicity or propaganda. Unfortunately, as with most of the publicity and propaganda statutes over the years, there is no definition of either term. Thus, the statutes have been applied through administrative interpretation.

In construing and applying a publicity or propaganda provision, it is necessary to achieve a delicate balance between competing interests. On the one hand, every agency has a legitimate interest in communicating with the public and with the Congress regarding its functions, policies, and activities. The Select Committee recognized this, quoting in its Interim Report from the report of the Hoover Commission:
    "Apart from his responsibility as spokesman, the department head has another obligation in a democracy: to keep the public informed about the activities of his agency. How far to go and what media to use in this effort present touchy issues of personal and administrative integrity. But of the basic obligation there can be little doubt." [Footnote 328]
In addition, the courts have indicated that it is not illegal for government agencies to spend money to advocate their positions, even on controversial issues. See Joyner v. Whiting, 477 F.2d 456, 461 (4th Cir. 1973 Donaggio v. Arlington County, Virginia, 880 F. Supp. 446, 454-56 (E.D. Va. 1995) ; Arrington v. Taylor, 380 F. Supp. 1348, 1364 (M.D. N.C. 1974). [Footnote 329]

Yet on the other hand, the statute has to mean something. As the court said in National Association for Community Development v. Hodgson, 356 F. Supp. 1399 (D.D.C. 1973) in reference to 18 U.S.C. § 1913, "[o]bviously, Congress intended to remedy some problem or further some cause, otherwise they would not have bothered enacting the statute." Id. at 1403. As long as the law exists, there has to be a point beyond which government action violates it. Testifying before the Select Committee on March 30, 1950, former Assistant Comptroller General Frank Weitzel made the following remarks:
    "If you set up an organization in the executive branch for the benefit of the three blind mice they would come up here with a budget program and prospectus which would convince any Member of Congress that that was one of the most important organizations in the executive branch….

    "And no doubt by that time there would also be some private organizations with branches which would parallel your Federal agency, which would be devoted to the propagation and dissemination of information about the three blind mice…." [Footnote 330]
In evaluating whether a given action violates a publicity or propaganda provision, GAO will rely heavily on the agency's administrative justification. In other words, the agency gets the benefit of any legitimate doubt. GAO will not accept the agency's justification where it is clear that the action falls into one of a very few specific categories.

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